Sunday, September 29, 2013

Life after major labels: The case of Sloan

Today on the blog, Part 1 of my interview with Jay Ferguson of Sloan. Two decades of satisfying the pop-rock cravings of fans the world over, and like Frankie said, or would have said, they did it their way.

L: Today's interviewee Jay in his formative musical years.  R: Jay, more recently

A quick band history in 100 words or less: They got their start in the early 90s, were signed to Geffen in fairly short order, and after a brief dalliance with label life decided it was not for them. I met the band during this time as I hosted a series of radio shows on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (1992-1999) so my years behind the mic synched up with their time as darlings of Much Music (Canada’s MTV) and alt-rock stations in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. 

They even appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.


I remember when I learned of the band’s decision to de-major label themselves, in the mid 1990s, and I had great difficulty getting my head around it. Getting onto a label was what everyone was trying to do, because it was generally the only way you could do things such as get your albums in stores, get your songs on the radio, get your videos onto the music video channels, and get press and promotion; all of which, if the stars aligned, made it possible to tour the clubs, bars, and even stadiums, of lands near and far. And to sell albums. Lots and lots of albums.

Gold in Canada: Jay, Patrick, Label guy?, Andrew, and Chris
Don't forget that the Internet was still in its exersaucer back then, and we were several decades into a music industry powered by the movement of big wheels on a big rig. And yet, despite gold records and Junos (Canadian equivalent of Grammys), the guys in Sloan came to the consensus that operating as part of the major label system was not for them.

Okay, so that was more than 100 words, but my point is that the band’s decision to extricate themselves from their label deal (which to me at the time seemed like taking a step backwards, not forward) turned out to be the best thing they ever did, as it paved the way for them to be able to operate the way they do today. They have ownership of most of their masters and publishing (most label deals make those assets the property of the label, with percentages going to the band/songwriters) and as a result have revenue streams sufficient to keep the band running as a profitable small business. The coming of technologies that enable direct to fan communication was a happy accident in the Sloan story, as they could not have foreseen the massive shift that would take place when media and entertainment became self-serve and on demand.

I have kept in touch with the band over the years, and when a work project took me to Toronto this summer I contacted guitarist Jay Ferguson to see if he would be willing to do a sit down interview. The topic would be reflecting on the music business, then and now, and how things have changed in the interim. It was a typically hot August night when Jay invited me into the kitchen of his Toronto bungaloft, and I'll be bringing you the conversation in a series of posts, as quickly as I can get the transcribing done. For now, let's get things started with Part One.



LK: Your band is one of the few bands that been able to reap the benefits of both the old and new music business. In fact it’s kind of like a career in reverse…in the best possible way. You built the band from the ground up, which resulted in getting the Geffen deal, then you worked hard to get away from the industry structures and toward doing things your own way. And then, in the chapter in which we find ourselves now, technology has made it possible for you to operate largely autonomously. With these things in mind what would you say are the pros & cons of the different systems you’ve experienced?

JF: I would have to say, the pros and cons of being on a major, if they’re behind you, is marketing. I find, for example, they can get you on radio, because you can’t do that on your own. You can hire independent promoters that help you get on the radio or there are people at the label who can do that but generally it’s the independent promoters. Good music doesn’t just get on the radio.

LK: But hasn’t the importance of radio diminished?

JF: I don’t know…because I don’t listen to it. But I would say that marketing dollars help, if a record company is really behind you. We benefitted from when Geffen was enthusiastic in the early days.  When we were on Murder [the band's own label, which has operated with distribution partnerships with a variety of major labels over the years] we were still being distributed by Universal, and their marketing really helped us. They helped get us on Much Music, in record stores, on the radio. We did things this way [recording on own label and having partnerships with majors] because we asked ourselves, "how much could we sell on our own…10,000?" And if we’re on a major, promoting us, would that 10,000 be 80,000? Or more? Probably. And even though they take a cut this still works out better for us. Over the years, we've had the conventional major deal with Geffen, then we started releasing our own music, on our label Murder, and over the year have done distribution deals with Universal (then MCA), BMG, then Sony/BMG, and a now defunct label that was called the Enclave (US only) that was distributed by EMI. They collapsed after 9 months. Classic music business story: musical chairs at the label, funding was lost, and they had to close up shop.

LK: How do you distribution now?

JF: We license to a company called Yep Roc. Yep Roc has people like Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, and Robyn Hitchcock. They’re not a big company, and they probably won’t get us on radio, but they’re fans of our records and they seem to know how to sustain fan bases. In Canada we use a company called Outside. We use Outside for marketing & promotion in Canada.

We still own our own records. And we have the freedom to, for example, put out an EP online, tomorrow. It's not like having an agreement with a larger label, where it takes months to get the red tape sorted out. But maybe that’s changed, I mean look at hip hop artists and mixtapes. 

LK: Yes, they're always "leaking" those, aren't they?
JF: Leaking is the new marketing. They probably have meetings about leakages (laughs). But anyway...we’re autonomous and we have our own web store where we have the whole catalogue for sale, digitally, and also sell our own records. Like last year, we did the Twice Removed box set.

The box set took Chris (Murphy) and I five months to do. We curated all the audio. What’s going to go on, tracking it down. Chris did all the interviewing for the liner notes, he also edited all the audio, created the oral history, and then we designed the book. We sift through our favourite design books and say "hey, why don’t we use this as the template for the book". We do all the artwork, so we’re the graphics department, and then I laid out the whole thing. We’re heavily involved, and even if we were on a major label I think we might not want to give up those tasks, because we want to do this stuff. We like to control the way we’re presented, to control our history…I don’t know if it’s vanity. I was writing a song the other day about keeping track of our own history. How are we going to be remembered…is it vanity or history? Do we leave it up to history, or is our vanity going to create how we’re going to be remembered. Making box sets remind people that we have a history. (laughs) but it’s kind of vain. I’m not going to wait for history…we’re going to tell you it’s history (laughs). It’s fun, in a way, because we like our band…we save articles, and demos, and posters…it’s almost like we thought about it in the 90s.

LK: And did you?

JF: I was always a fan of reissues and I remember thinking ‘I can’t wait to do this for our own band’. And I know Chris loves beautiful things, like archival material. And me, just being a fan of records, I loved it when things were done nicely. I’m glad that we saved all that stuff because now we have the fodder.

LK: Which will secure you a place in capital H history.

JF: (laughs)

Read Part Two, in which LK & JF discuss how the band has adjusted to a music industry no longer based primarily on album sales and mass marketing. And Part Three in which we get down to business on how the band runs the business.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On the economy of big enough

Achieving critical mass or 'scale' used to be the key to success, particularly in the media and entertainment industries. If you could get your work out to a large audience, then you had a chance. But if you weren't reaching millions, you generally weren't in the game. Because you couldn't be in the game. That's because the game was a hierarchical system with many levels and lots of intermediaries. To a sizable extent things have changed. Not everything, of course, but enough to keep me busy thinking about different examples and circumstances, and to keep tapping out blog posts on the topic here. 
While the mass market and mass media continue to exist, we also have a demassification of systems -- witnessed in new practices of production, consumption, and distribution. One of the results is new middle ground of 'big enough' -- things that aren't blockbuster or massive hits, but things that are also not so limited in appeal as to be considered unfeasible or anything more than a hobby. If this isn't pushing the metaphor too far, it is now possible to be a small fish in a small pond and make it work...primarily because your small pond can receive widespread distribution, via networks of what economists would could call non-market actors. The people who blog and tweet and post links to articles, videos, and songs on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest etc. are generally doing so not with a commercial incentive, but with an expressive incentive. The result is a de facto army of publicists, working for you, the creator, that you did not have to hire and, chances are, don't even know.
I have had many conversations with people about this shift, i.e. the effect of digital and networks technologies in the context of moving beyond the old industry binaries of 'hit' or 'bomb', toward a third option in which an audience that is big enough to be sustainable can be built and/or found. A post from earlier this year looked at this phenomenon from the point of view of the music industry, one of the classic industries predicated on the notion of winners and losers...and a dropkick for just about everyone else, as indicated in the diagram below.

Hit-based industries operated this way because they generally had to operate this way in an environment of high costs of talent development, high costs of production, high costs of distribution, and high costs of marketing. If your album or CD was occupying physical space on a store shelf it had to be selling X copies per week in order to keep its place on the shelf. If it didn't move from shelf to cash register, it moved from shelf to distributor or to the delete bin. 

While the new landscape in which we find ourselves means that the cost of getting in to the system is as  negligible -- you just need to create your video or song or blog post, using free or cheap software, and upload -- it also means a big, messy talent pool of contributors. Heroes and anti-heroes can co-exist, as we see when we look at the most viewed YouTube channels for the week of September 13th/13. Yes, it's mostly stars of the music world (Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Robin Thicke, et al) but it's also random YouTubers, people that started out outside of the industrial star system, and who have risen to varying levels of prominence, such as  Vitalyzd, self-described on hisYouTube page as a "Russian dude with a camera and some wonderful ideas"and The Young Turks, an online news show that morphed from podcast to YouTube series. 

Self-described "Russian dude with a camera": Current view count on this video is 4.5 million

You might say "...that's nice, but I haven't heard of either of them". Fair enough, and that's my point. Yes, you've heard of Gangnam style and probably the sneezing panda too, but that's because those videos achieved that elusive things referred to as 'virality', and viral is usually something that happens once.  Chances are that panda is not going to sneeze in quite that same way ever again, and Psy will probably not have another billion view song on YouTube. Whereas people you haven't heard of are bringing in 'big enough' audiences on a weekly basis, and finding a career path outside of conventional definitions of stardom. Vitalyzd has over 250 million views on his channel and The Young Turks have over 1 billion views, and both are in the Top 50 most viewed YouTube Channels for the week.

The Antiheroes can now co-exist alongside the heroes; (and I use the term in the context of the popular, the known bona fide stars, not because I find them particularly heroic). Case in point: this guy, who eats and drinks unusual things, such as an entire bottle of wasabi, or a deodorant stick, or the requisite Jager bombs. In real time. Bro or frat humor, to be sure, but it would never would warrant ten mintues at a time on television. (Deodorant eating, Jager-slamming man is closing in on 60 millions views on his YouTube channel).

Man eats deodorant stick on camera...because he can. 1.6 million enjoy.

The distinction between amateur and pro is no longer the crisp one it once was. Pro meant you were known, that you were considered good enough, by enough people, to be making a living doing what you were doing. Amateur meant that you loved doing what you were doing, but for a variety of reasons, it was not to be your livelihood. As an executive from YouTube said at a talk I heard earlier this year: "the audience now gets to define what good is".

And this is what is different about the economy of the Internet. Demassified and dispersed production. A coming together of market forces and non-market forces. Genres which previously did not exist. The possibility of what were once just interesting niches becoming feasible, not only in terms of dollars and cents economics, but also in terms of gaining a place on people's radar. Whereas mainstream systems tended to measure quality in terms of something's ability to reach a mass audience, we now have ways to measure more incremental bursts of activity and to match audiences to these bursts accordingly.

Related Posts: 

The 3rd wave of podcasting and how we got here
Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching The Niches  
The Creative Economy: Is the (3rd) Party Over?
Platform Capitalism, or why your parents don't understand the Internet